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Through the Cross, Joy

Let us commend ourselves…
The first few days after the miscarriage were foggy and confusing. We were devastated. Afraid. Empty. We weren’t so much angry with God as numb. We shut down and withdrew. Why did we have to let go of the child we never met? Our emotional turmoil mirrored the winter weather: swirling snow shut everything down, and we were shut inside with our grief.

On the third day, God gave us a great gift to begin the slow process of healing. The blizzard dissipated, leaving everything hushed by a serene blanket of white snow. With everyone else inside to enjoy the day off, cozy with family before their fireplaces, the world outside remained quiet and pure, unspoiled. A new beginning. We alone emerged, tentatively, into that peaceful silence; tentatively, we entrusted part of our broken selves back to the Creator.

The next place we felt comfortable was in church, the Saturday night Vigil. We didn’t have to make meaningless small talk or look anyone in the eye. Others prayed by candlelight; we simply stood, holding onto the stillness from the previous day, letting the prayers wash over us. Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee. The prayers in preparation for Sunday, the day of resurrection ­­already, but not yet. For Thy Name’s sake have I waited for Thee. We sat in the hushed service together, keeping watch before the icon of St. Anna the Prophetess, who is practiced at receiving children. We decided to commend our lost child to her, and to remember her with the same name. From the morning watch until night, let Israel hope in the Lord. Perhaps we could relearn how to commend ourselves to Christ, too.

Let us commend each other…
The close community at St. Vladimir’s carried us. Two priests came to see us shortly after it happened. They listened, they prayed; they assured us we could always call on them. They were kind and wise in their brevity. Perhaps one of the best lessons in the art of pastoral care.

The best gift our friends gave us at first was space. The second best was food. The evening after our loss came a knock at the door: no one there, just a bag of groceries and warm comfort food. And a note: We’ve been there; we’re here for you. Two of our closest friends. First there was a wave of guilt—how had we not known and acknowledged their pain? Then a stronger feeling, like a firm embrace: they loved us anyway, and there was nothing we could do about it.

We were not prepared for the gentle compassion we received. No one smothered us, but somehow, discretely, we were assured of everyone’s support. Family sent cards. A baby blanket in memoriam. We were even less prepared for the number of friends who had also miscarried. Obadiah. Innocent. Anna. They all had names, icons in the family prayer corner. How had we never noticed? Another couple of our closest friends invited us in. They had been there, too. You’ll never forget her. It still hits us unexpectedly after three years. Tears. Hugs. A deep bond that only comes with vulnerability and shared experience. Only in reflecting back do we see how we made it through.

With every act of kindness toward us, every tear shed with us, every prayer said secretly for us: our friends and family commended us to Christ when we were too lost and lethargic to know where to turn.

Let us commend all our life unto Christ our God.
Slowly the pain dulled, the sobs came less frequently, and we returned to life as usual. We mercifully receded from the spotlight. Nothing would ever be the same, but neither did it have to remain bleak. There were new pains, new fears, new questions; but we were finding a new resilience, and new wisdom. God had not left us during the most painful time of our lives, and in fact, we had never been closer to or more loved by our friends. As we practiced ­­haltingly ­­ giving every thorny part of our life over to God, we found that the pain was not to be avoided or merely endured, but could actually be cultivated into the most precious fruit­bearing tree. Now the flaming sword no longer guards the gates of Eden; Behold, through the Cross joy has come into all the world. Enter again into paradise.

After forty days of mourning, of lamentation, of the cold beginning of a New York spring—Pascha. In spite of ourselves, we dove into the celebration. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. Still not yet, not fully. But it felt closer; more certain. We grew to believe with more zeal than ever before. The child that never saw the light of day—her story did not, in fact, end before it began. We hope to meet her one day.

After forty days of paschal joy, of the hope of resurrection and reunion, of sunny days and blooming flowers, we had a memorial service and found out we were pregnant again. At the beginning of this year, our son was born, healthy and happy, by the grace of God. He cannot replace Anna, or erase the scar from our hearts; neither will he be overshadowed by her. Rather, he will grow up under the watchful protection of the Prophetess Anna and the Wonderworker Nicholas. And standing together in our prayer corner, before their icons and by their prayers, we three together will learn to commend ourselves, and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God.

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Andrew, Melissa, and Nicholas Cannon live at St. Vladimir’s, where Andrew is in his final semester of his studies in the Master of Arts program.

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Words of life

Sermon, Fourth Saturday of Lent 2016

Gospel readings for April 9, 2016

 

Imagine, if you will, life as a deaf person. More specifically, imagine all of the things that you can do in the course of a day that would be nearly impossible, or at least significantly more difficult, if you were deaf. How would you wake up in the morning if you couldn’t hear your alarm clock? How would you answer the phone at work if you can’t hear the person on the other end? How could you talk to someone at the grocery store if they couldn’t speak American Sign Language?

Now imagine life as a deaf person in the first century, and not just a deaf person, but mute as well. This existence would have been one of severe limitations, and of austere loneliness and isolation. There were no subtitles, no sign language, no detailed communication whatsoever! This is the picture that the Gospel paints for us today; the man that Jesus heals had to be brought to him, a man who was deaf and without speech. But it is the way that Jesus heals him that is so peculiar; Jesus heals a deaf man by speaking to him. Think about that for just a moment; how many times would someone have spoken a word, or a multitude of words to this man? The words would have entered his ears and then evaporated into the ether, unheard and unheeded, and the speaker, with a puzzled look, would have eventually given up and walked away.

 

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Christ heals the deaf man, 14th century mosaic, Kariye Camii, Istanbul (Church of the Holy Saviour, Chora)

 

How many of us are just like this deaf man? The words of those around us enter our ears, good words from good people. But even though they enter our ears, they remain unheard and unheeded. Maybe it’s the council that the priest gives to us when we go to confession. Maybe it’s the advice that our parents give when we’re making big life-decisions. Or maybe it’s something that we read in a book of sayings of the fathers. Whatever the source of the words, so often we, like the deaf man, move on without actually hearing what was said.

But why is it so important for us to hear these words?

So often, after we are approached or reproached, admonished or encouraged, we remain unchanged. For better or for worse, the words of those around us inspire and encourage us. They comfort us, they motivate us, they amaze us, they edify us, and sometimes they trouble us; and these experiences have the power to transform us. And it is the opening of our ears that is the gateway to this transformation. But there is something different about Jesus’ words; they are uttered by the Son of God, and he who hears those words will live. “Be opened!” These words didn’t just enter his ears; they sank deep into his heart, changing him.

Here at the liturgy, we encounter words like the ones that healed the deaf man, words of life. Every Sunday, as we gather for the liturgy, we have an encounter much the same as the one that Jesus had with the deaf man. We listen to the reading of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, the epic story of how God came as a man to save his creation from the clutches of death.

We have the amazing ability to be healed, to be TRANSFORMED! Now, there is no guarantee that when these words enter our ears we will hear them, much less obey. But it is these words that have the power to sink deep into our hearts, into the marrow of our bones, into our very beings, opening our ears and transforming the way that we live our lives. These words, these words of transformation, are the words of Jesus Christ.

Now, I know what you’re going to say next; “But Father, there’s so much more to liturgy than listening to the Gospel!” And while I’m hesitant to agree with that statement, you’re right; the liturgy is a Gospel encounter, and an important part of that is hearing the Gospel read and preached, but the work of the liturgy is more varied than just that.

Again we see an example of this in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus speaks words of life that transform the deaf man, but he also touches the deaf man, on his tongue. Now, of course we can be rational and say that it makes sense that Jesus would touch a mute man’s tongue to heal him, where else would he touch him? But this intimate action has deeper significance for us than just cold, rational, logical analog. The deaf man receives words of life, and also the touch of Christ on his tongue, loosing it and allowing him to speak plainly. And what is the first thing that the man does with his newly found speech? He speaks to everyone he meets, telling them of the miraculous things that Jesus Christ had done for him! So too do we, after receiving the sweet Savior on our tongues, receive the ability and the zeal to tell everyone about the marvelous things he has done for us and all mankind! Just as the Psalmist says, so too can we say, “My soul is satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.” Our tongues are not just loosened to speak plainly, but powerfully, and with praise.

And so, on this memorial Saturday, the last of the Lenten season for this year, we are given this story of complete healing for our own healing. We are told of the truth of Christ, that whoever hears his words and believes in the one who sent him has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. Because they have heard and believed the words of he who was sent, they are transformed. This is who we pray for at the great entrance when we commemorate those who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection of the life to come.

This is that hope; to hear the words of Christ, to let them renew and transform us, and to have tongues that are able to praise, bless, and worship Christ, telling everyone that we meet of the incomparable glory of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


Father Ryan Bishop is a third-year seminarian at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Fr. Ryan earned a Bachelor of Arts in Biblical Studies from Columbia Bible College in 2006, and a Joinery Foundations Certificate in 2008. After several years in the cabinetry industry, he decided to work for himself from home, making furniture and looking after his two children. In 2013, the Bishop family embarked on their journey to New York, in order for Fr. Ryan to participate in the Master of Divinity program at St. Vladimir’s. He was ordained to the Holy Priesthood on February 28, 2016, by His Eminence Irenée, Archbishop of Ottawa and the Archdiocese of Canada.

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Everyone loves a winner

Everyone loves a winner.

We celebrate athletes that run and jump, throw and catch better and faster than anyone else. We marvel at entrepreneurs who start companies that earn billions of dollars. We idolize the actors and musicians who are at the top of their craft. Everyone loves a winner.

We live in a culture that worships winners. It’s all about winning elections, winning arguments, winning friends and influencing people. Winning may be our greatest obsession. What does it take to win? What strategy will give us an advantage over our opponent? What kind of training and preparation will give us the edge that we need to come out on top? We work and plan and scheme to figure out a way to win, and then we dream about the glory that will be ours.

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Christ appearing to the Disciples on a mountain in Galilee (detail). Church of the Protaton, Mt. Athos.

This is probably what Peter was thinking when he and the disciples entered Caesarea Philippi with Jesus. It was there, in that city with its famous pagan temple, that Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” The disciples said, “Some people think that you are John the Baptist, some say that you are Elijah, and others say that you are one of the prophets.” But then, Peter, going for the win, says, “You are the Christ, God’s anointed, the messiah!” Peter does not think of Jesus as some member of the supporting cast; he says that Jesus is the Christ, the one that God sent to deliver His people. But Jesus immediately commands them not to tell anyone about him. Isn’t that strange? Why does Jesus tell them not to say anything about him? It is because Peter was wrong.

Yes, Jesus is the Christ, but what Peter has in mind when he says that Jesus is the “Christ” is completely off base. Peter thinks the Christ will be the great hero who ends up with more money and more power and is more feared than the Emperor of Rome. Peter thinks that the Christ will raise up an army to fight for the Hebrew people and crush their Roman oppressors. Peter thinks that the Christ is going to be a winner on the world’s terms.

Jesus must have known exactly what Peter was thinking.

And this is why Jesus immediately starts telling his disciples that the Christ, the Son of Man, must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed, and after three days be raised.

Yes, Jesus is the Christ, but he’s a different kind of Christ than the one Peter was looking for. After Jesus spells out very plainly to the disciples that the Christ is not going to bring about victory on human terms, Jesus began to teach the disciples that the Son of man must suffer many things, that he would be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, that he would be killed, and after three days rise again. Jesus told them all of this in plain unequivocal language. But then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Peter actually rebukes Jesus.

In other words, Peter speaks to Jesus like some sort of campaign manager, “Lord, what are you talking about? Rejection, suffering, being killed…are you kidding me?!? This is not what God’s anointed is supposed to do, and this is certainly NOT what you are going to do!”

Peter thinks that he knows better than Jesus, Peter thinks that Jesus needs to be corrected about what it means to be the Christ. And how easy is it for us to make the same mistake. In our effort to win our own victories, how easy is it to tell God what to do and how to do it?

“Lord, make sure that I get a big payoff.”

“Lord, make sure that my plans work out this time.”

“Lord, do exactly what I want, so that I can win.”

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Christ appearing to the Disciples on a mountain in Galilee (detail). Church of the Protaton, Mt. Athos.

Sometimes we may think that God has strayed from the playbook, things aren’t turning out as we planned so maybe we need to give God a reminder about what God is supposed to do. Peter definitely thought that he had to tell Jesus what to do in order to achieve an earthly victory. That’s why Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan. For you are not on the side of God but on the side of men.” Jesus tells Peter and us that winning, according to the rules of this world, is a false victory. Christ says “Whoever would save his life would lose it.” An earthly victory is a false victory because, for every army that marches home in victory, there are scores of widows and orphans who weep in the ashes and rubble of defeat. For every billionaire entrepreneur, there are millions of people living in poverty. For everyone who wins an argument, there is someone who is left in anger and resentment. And the bottom line is that we don’t always win. More often than not, when we lose, or when our plans don’t work out, in our desperation we can so easily turn against God and turn against the people we love.

This is exactly what happened to Peter when he denied Jesus on the night before the Crucifixion. In the cold, darkness of that courtyard outside of the house of the high priest, Peter watched and waited, hoping that somehow his plans and schemes for the messiah could still be salvaged. But when the bystanders said, “Hey, aren’t you one of Jesus’ friends; Yeah, you are one of Jesus’ disciples; You are a Galilean, you must be on of Jesus’ followers.” Three times, Peter denied that he knew Jesus, invoking a curse and swearing, “I do not know this man Jesus.”

And when Peter realized what he had done, he broke down and wept. Everything had gone wrong, and in his desperation, he had denied and abandoned Jesus. Peter’s life had become a living hell. To worship the false-victory of this world is to live in hell. Perhaps in that moment, Peter remembered Jesus’ words, “Get behind me Satan.” But in that moment, maybe Peter also remembered what Jesus right after that. Jesus says to His disciples, “Whoever desires to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” These are the same words that Jesus speaks to us on this third Sunday of Great Lent, the Sunday of the Cross.

The preparation of the Crucifixion 1312 Holy Monastery of Vatopedi Mount Athos

The preparation of the Crucifixion. Monastery of Vatopedi, Mt. Athos.

Jesus does not say, “whoever desires to come after me should go out and get himself crucified.” Jesus specifically says, “take up the cross and follow me”—which is the complete opposite of everything we know about winning. To carry your cross is to experience the absolute shame of defeat. It is like the condemned man who is commanded to prepare the noose for his own hanging. It is like the victims in the concentration camp who are forced to dig the pit that will become their own mass grave.

In Jesus’ time, the ritual of forcing a condemned man to carry his cross was murderous mockery. Carrying the cross was part of the bloody Roman propaganda that said, “Behold this man, who disobeyed our commands.

Look at how we crush him and strip him of his last shred of dignity.

Look at how we force him to carry the cross that we will use to execute him.

Look at the power of the Empire, look at how we have won.”

And Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, submits to the Cross willingly, to show that God’s victory is not the victory of this world. Christ’s death on the Cross is the sign that the power of God is greater than the most hideous power of this world. For in the very midst of the humiliation, and agony of crucifixion, as they nailed his hands and feet to the Cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

And at that moment, the world was forever changed. Because the hateful power of this world was defeated by the Love of God.

By carrying his cross, Jesus shows that the evil of man is powerless against the mercy of God. By carrying his cross, Jesus marches straight into the depths of hell and broke the bonds of sin and death. By carrying his cross, Jesus shows us a way out of the darkness of sin into the pure light of forgiveness. This is the victory of Christ, and this is why we bow down before the Cross.

Jesus’ victory on the Cross is the most unlikely victory that the world has ever seen. Because in the Resurrection, Jesus did not return to take vengeance on the people who betrayed him and murdered him. In the Resurrection, Jesus returned and forgave Peter. And then Jesus sent his disciples out to preach the good news to the very people who had killed him, the gentiles, the Romans.

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Apostle Paul. Church of the Protaton, Mt. Athos.

We see this so clearly in Acts, when Paul and Silas had been arrested and beaten and thrown into jail. There they are in that dark, dank prison, singing hymns and praising God when all of a sudden there was an earthquake and the doors were opened, and all the chains of the prisoners were loosed. When the jailer woke up, and saw what had happened, he assumed that all of the prisoners had escaped, and in his despair, he was about to kill himself. But Paul cried out, “Don’t harm yourself, we are all here.” In that moment, it would have been so easy for Paul to have said, “Ha, let that jailer get what he deserves.” But instead he saved the man from his despair. The jailer cried out, “What must I do to be saved?” And Paul told him about the love and mercy and power of Jesus, the Crucified Messiah.

This is the victory of the Gospel: those small, bright moments of reconciliation, when people who would otherwise be enemies, turn and embrace one another in the love of Christ. This is what it means to take up the cross and follow Christ.

Paul and Silas, and Peter and all the other disciples took up the Cross and followed Christ. They were given divine courage to endure the same kind of humiliation that Christ endured, and to share the love and mercy of God with everyone.

And today, as we fall down before the Holy Cross, as it is lifted up and we praise it in our hymns and songs, we are strengthened with the same divine courage. We face the evil, and the anger of this world, and we take up our cross and follow Christ, showing mercy and forgiveness to everyone around us, glorifying Jesus Christ. For Jesus’ victory, His victory on the Cross, the victory of God’s love, is our one true and lasting victory.


The Rev. Dr. J. Sergius Halvorsen (SVOTS ’96) received his M.Div. from St. Vladimir’s Seminary and completed his doctoral dissertation at Drew University in 2002. From 2000 to 2011 he taught at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell Connecticut, where he also served as Director of Distance Learning. He was ordained to the priesthood in February 2004, and currently serves on the faculty of SVOTS as Assistant Professor of Homiletics and Rhetoric and Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program.

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A new heart of mercy and love

Readings for the day: 1 Cor. 8:8–9:2; Matt. 25:31–46.

 

Santa Maria Assunta Torcello Angel Detail

Last Judgment (detail), 12th-13thc, Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta.

 

Today is both Meatfare Sunday and the day on which we remember the Last Judgment. The readings we have just heard speak to both of these directly and in complementary ways.

 

With Meatfare Sunday our preparation for Great Lent begins to take on a concretely dietary aspect, as its name indicates. This is the last day before Great Lent for eating meat. Thus begins, as it were, a warm up for the hard exercises, the asceticism, ahead of us.

 

It is very easy to miss the point of such practices. The purpose of such efforts is not simply to do what is expected of us, but instead to allow ourselves to be weaned from our dependency on everything that might separate us from God—not because it is bad in itself, but because of how we relate to it or depend on it. I’m reminded of this every time I persuade myself that I can’t do anything in the morning until I’ve had a cup of coffee: there is nothing at all wrong with coffee; and it is not my body that craves it; it is rather my mental attitude towards coffee or caffeine that has made that cup into my “god.”

 

We hear Paul remind us that the food itself is not the issue: it makes no difference to God whether we eat meat or don’t. God is not concerned with our diet! We are free in all of this, and it is this freedom which makes what we do of any worth anyway. If we freely, willingly, eagerly even, undertake the disciplines which the Church sets before us, we might just come to be less dependent upon our creature comforts. Only then will we come to realize that we are in fact truly dependent only upon God, for in truth most of us, most of the time, do not realize this. Only then will we come to know God truly, and to know God acting in us.

 

The freedom that Paul had in mind was even more radical: he was talking about the freedom of eating food offered to idols in pagan temples. Eating food that has been offered to idols… ! This is the paradigmatic expression of religious devotion; it is what we do, when we gather together as the body of Christ, to partake in his body. So when Paul says that we are free to eat such food, it is strong language indeed. We can only do this, as he points out, knowing that the idols don’t really exist, so that there is therefore nothing to prevent Christians from eating such food.

 

But he warns us, if our eating such food causes our brothers a scandal, and perhaps leads them astray—so that they also eat such food, while still thinking that idols are somehow real—then we are guilty of misusing our freedom to the destruction of others. We are responsible for having injured the one for whom Christ died.

 

As we move ever closer towards Great Lent, then, we are reminded that we are totally free, with the proviso that what we do must be for the building up, rather than the destruction, of the body of Christ.

 

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Last Judgment (detail).

Having been confirmed in our freedom (and been warned what a dangerous liberty it is), and having heard, over the last two Sundays (the Publican and the Pharisee, and the Prodigal Son) of God’s patience and inexhaustible compassion—that he is ready to receive every sinner who returns to him—we are now reminded in today’s Gospel of the other side of this awesome truth: that the God who receives sinners does so as their judge. As we heard, when Christ comes again in his glory, sitting upon his throne, he comes as our judge.

 

 

We enter Great Lent, therefore, as a period of preparation for the return of our Savior, waiting for him, as we also do on the first days of Holy Week, waiting for the one who will return unexpectedly, in the middle of the night, to take us as he finds us.

 

In both cases we are presented with the humiliated Christ, the man of sorrows—the Bridegroom. In the words of today’s Gospel, Christ identifies himself precisely with the lowly, the outcast and the unwelcome: the hungry, the sick, the destitute, the stranger, the one in prison. These are his brethren, and what we do to the least of these, we do to Christ himself.

 

In all of this, Christ is not a judge in the sense of someone who takes records, evaluates the evidence, and then pronounces a sentence. Definitely not! God bestows his bounty upon the sinners and the righteous alike. Rather it all depends upon our state, how he finds us. How we respond to him then will depend upon the habits that we’re developing even now. It is this that will determine whether we become a vessel of his glorification or of his judgment.

 

The judgment that we bring upon ourselves is one that we are working out even now—in all our dealings with others, here and now, every day and every moment. Notice that nothing particularly great is expected of us (and nothing is said about fasting): we are presented with the poor asking for food, some bread—not a banquet; others asking for a roof, a piece of clothing, some cold water, a visit—nothing much, and certainly nothing which is not in our power to do.

 

In all of this, if we harden our hearts towards others, if we fail to respond to the opportunities which present themselves, then we are already passing judgment on ourselves. If we cannot receive him in his brethren, then we will no longer know how to receive Christ. When Christ returns in glory, we will be told to depart into the eternal fire—fire which is not prepared for us, but for the devil himself.

 

If we cannot respond to our neighbor in need, then the very glory and splendor of Christ when he returns will also be too much for us: for it is the same Christ in each case, even if we do not recognize him.

 

But such lack of compassion is not our proper inheritance; this is not how we were created to be.

 

It is striking that those who did open their hearts and their goods and time to others were also surprised at Christ’s words: “When did we do this to you?” They were not serving the poor out of a sense of duty, or hoping for a reward, but simply acting out of love, and in so doing acquiring a new heart of mercy and love, a heart which opens them up to receive the glory and splendor of Christ.

 

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Last Judgment (detail).

 

This is the inheritance which has been prepared for us from the foundation of the world. Seeing God in one’s neighbor and responding in a Christ-like fashion—this is what it is to be in the image of God, living in the kingdom or paradise of God.

 

Let us pray that we may prepare ourselves for the approaching Lenten season, and also, more generally, that we be able to see every moment of our life as being under the judgment of the returning Christ, for we assuredly are.


 

cross_stands__52149-1406224506-300-300For more homilies by Fr. John Behr, check out The Cross Stands While the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year. Emphases added.

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Return to the Father

Written by Fr. Thomas Hopko, The Lenten Spring is a book of spiritual readings for the season of Great Lent.

People feel unhappy and they don’t know why. They feel that something is wrong, but they can’t put their finger on what. They feel uneasy in the world, confused and frustrated, alienated and estranged, and they can’t explain it. They have everything and yet they want more. And when they get it, they are still left empty and dissatisfied. They want happiness and peace, and nothing seems to bring it. They want fulfillment, and it never seems to come. Everything is fine, and yet everything is wrong. In America this is almost a national disease. It is covered over by frantic activity and endless running around. It is buried in activities and events. It is drowned out by television programs and games. But when the movement stops and the dial is turned off and everything is quiet …then the dread sets in, and the meaninglessness of it all, and the boredom, and the fear. Why is this so? Because, the Church tells us, we are really not at home. We are in exile. We are alienated and estranged from our true country. We are not with God our Father in the land of the living. We are spiritually sick. And some of us are already dead.

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Sunday of the Prodigal Son (detail). BLAGO Archives.

Our hearts are made for God, St. Augustine has said, and we will be forever restless until we rest in Him. Our lives are made for God, and we will be unfulfilled and dissatisfied and frustrated until we go to Him. All of God’s creatures, as Francis Thompson said in his poem The Hound of Heaven, are His “loyal betrayers.” They do not satisfy His children and cannot bring them peace. He alone can do that, because He alone is our home. And we are His.

The lenten season is the time for our conscious return to our true home. It is the time set aside for us to come to ourselves and to get up and go to the divine reality to which we truly belong.

97808814101431Excerpt from The Lenten Spring by Fr. Thomas Hopko, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983, p. 21-22. Emphases added.

 

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Changed by His grace

It was Easter morning during my first year at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, and I stood at the altar of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Teaneck, New Jersey, wearing subdeacon vestments, listening to our bishop read the gospel of St. Mark. In the traditional Syriac Orthodox melody, he chanted:

And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him.” (Mark 16.5-6).

I was overwhelmed by these words. He is risen, he is not here! Silently, I began to weep. The sense of awe that accompanied this moment was soon replaced with embarrassment, as I saw our bishop looking right at me as tears dripped off my chin. I shuffled off to find a tissue.

Why did teapascha1rs come to me at such a moment? Certainly, the feast of our Lord’s resurrection holds great power. But thinking back on all that had occurred over my first year at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, I realized that what I experienced on that day was the result of accumulation. The Seminary prescribes for its students a life focused on seeking the Lord, and such a life is a struggle against the outside world. This Christ-centered focus is supported by chapel services, classes, community service, fasts, confession, and for a married student such as myself, family life. Yet on any given day, I would often wonder if such a routine was bearing any fruit. On this Easter day, I received an answer. Each day lived trying to fix our gaze on our Lord has a great benefit. It is a benefit that is usually unseen from day to day, but which accumulates slowly over time.

St. John Climacus addresses the unseen character of the spiritual life. He writes:

After a long spell of prayer, do not say that nothing has been gained, for you have already achieved something. For after all, what higher good is there than to cling to the Lord, to persevere in unceasing union with him? (Ladder of Divine Ascent, 28.32)

Life at seminary, and the life of every Orthodox Christian, is an effort to cling to the Lord each day. My time at St. Vladimir’s, particularly on that Easter morning, has taught me that, though we may not perceive any immediate changes as we try to live according to Church teaching, each day of effort matters. The Lord sees our labor and our constant yearning for Him, and slowly changes us by His grace.

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The tears granted to me on Easter were a gift, showing me that, to some small and humble measure, the truth of the resurrection had established some root in my heart. Even so, the reality is that I am still a spiritual beginner, returning often to ego and self-will instead of casting myself completely upon the Lord. Yet, as my time here at seminary draws to an end, I will leave as a spiritual beginner, yet one who knows what I must do with the remainder of the earthly life that God gives me. I must work, seeking Him every day, and I pray that by His grace the following words will continue to descend into my heart, filling it through and through:

He is risen, he is not here!


Thomas Totonchy is a third-year Master of Divinity student from the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch. He is from Portland, Oregon, where his father helped to establish the St. Ignatius of Antioch parish. There he served as a subdeacon and was involved in youth ministry before coming to New York for seminary with his wife Jennifer, who works at the Weill Cornell Medical College. In the summer of 2015, they welcomed their daughter Josephine into the world. After seminary, Thomas hopes to continue to serve the Church as a youth minister, and if it be God’s will, as a priest.

(Photos: Leanne Parrott Photography)

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A sacrament of divine presence

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Martyr Mamas (Dokheiariou Monastery, Mt. Athos, Greece)

It is not always easy—to say the least—to relate the world of the saints to our own everyday life, where harmony is rarely the dominant characteristic of our environment or our relations with other creatures. A hermit in the desert might co-exist with local fauna; but the population of a city is bound to displace many, many other creatures. And then there are the creatures whose interests seem to be in direct conflict with our own: does “loving everything with the same love” really extend to the mosquito or the deer tick?

To this last question, the holy ascetic might well answer “Yes.” But what does that mean in practice? It defines such a person’s own relationship with unattractive and dangerous creatures; but there is always a difference between what one may accept for oneself and what one expects others to bear. The saints show us clearly that genuine God spills over into loving compassion for all his creatures, just as it is inseparable from love for our brother and sister. In the world of the fall, an all-embracing love does not exclude the possibility that animals may need to be deliberately killed if they threaten human life, like Abba Helle’s crocodile. Yet the saints teach us that the life of even an insect should not be taken thoughtlessly, and that our power over other creatures gives us a responsibility for their welfare. The stories of how holy people have lived inspire us to look hard at the possibilities for coexistence before taking more drastic action; and if we want to avoid outright conflict with other creatures today, ecological understanding is one of our most valuable tools. To return, for instance, to the aforementioned deer tick: we discover too late how the explosion in tick populations is linked with the extinction of the passenger pigeon, whose flocks would strip the oaks of acorns. With the birds gone, a wealth of acorns fed a growing population of mice, hosts for the ticks. There was a world in which we could coexist more easily with the tick, and we destroyed that world—not in the days of Adam, but in the twentieth century.

When we think about the displacement of other creatures and habitat destruction as a result of human activities, or the uses to which we put domestic and experimental animals, the approach will be similar. If we can discern a principle, it would be that human needs prevail—but not human whims or human greed. If I am harming other creatures by serving interests of my own, I must consider honestly whether my “need” is real or frivolous and whether it can be fulfilled in some other way.

The way we interact with other creatures cannot, however, be reduced simply to a set of ethical principles. Fundamental to our attitude, and therefore our behavior, is the way we perceive the world around us. Much modern thinking is dominated by ways of perceiving that are based on “nature red in tooth and claw”: the world is an arena of cutthroat competition, a battleground of selfish genes. It is important to recognize that these are not objective descriptions, but frameworks for an interpretation of the facts—lenses through which we perceive reality. And the Church offers us a different lens, that of the icon. An icon of the transfigured human being, and in some cases the environment around him or her, does speak to us of the actual world around us and how to treat the land in which we live. The ultimate contrast is not between sharing our environment or preserving it in a pristine state. The choice before us is whether or not we will embrace its potential, as the saints have done, so that natural and man made features alike become a sacrament of divine presence.

livingThis is an excerpt from Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology by Elizabeth Theokritoff, published by SVS Press. Emphases added.

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